Oslo Journal, Part V

Ali Abdulemam


Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference held in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of his journal are at the following links: I, II, III, IV.

It is now Ali Abdulemam’s turn to speak. He hasn’t spoken in a long time — at least not publicly. Abdulemam is the Bahraini blogger and ex-political prisoner who has been in hiding for two years. This conference marks his reemergence.

He speaks about the climate of fear in Bahrain. If you sing an anti-government song — or even beat out its rhythm on your car horn — you face prison.

In the last two years, “more than 25 bloggers,” Abdulemam says, “have been arrested, tortured, and sentenced.” Journalists in general have been subjected to the same.

“Before going forward,” he says, “I have to warn you that I have some graphic pictures.” (I am paraphrasing Abdulemam’s remarks.) I’m not going to look at the pictures. As I said in this journal earlier, I believe the worst anyway.

Abdulemam speaks of a friend of his, Karim Fakhrawi, “who opened a bookstore near my house.” At the time, “I was young and thirsty to read. The first book I bought from my own pocket, I bought there.”

Fakhrawi was an oppositionist and patriot. “He had such a good heart,” says Abdulemam. “You just wanted to talk to him.” One day, the police came to get him. A week later, they told his family to collect him. He was a corpse. He had been tortured to death.

I can’t help sneaking a look at the pictures. I’m sorry I do. And I wonder: Why did they have to torture him to death? Wouldn’t locking him up and throwing away the key have been enough?

Abdulemam has yet more stories to tell — similar stories. And he says he is speaking out, working for democracy, because he doesn’t want his children to “grow up like I had to.” In that climate of fear.

Look, the United States needs allies, including in the Arab world, and I’m a realpolitiker (to a considerable degree). I know there is plenty of nose-holding in foreign policy. But damn it, I’m sick of allies who torture innocent people to death. Leave that to our enemies.

You know?

Peter Godwin is a well-known writer from Zimbabwe. He is articulate in the way graduates of Oxford and Cambridge are expected to be. (He studied at both universities — which is really gilding the lily.)

Interesting how he pronounces the name of his native country. Sounds like “Zimbabwee” to me.

Godwin notes that Mugabe is closing in on 90 years old, and has been in power for 33 years. That’s nothing: Fidel Castro has been on top — Raúl is a stand-in — 54 years. Mugabe is a rookie by comparison.

Castro is one of the longest-“serving” — longest-ruling — dictators in history.

Godwin speaks of torture, endless torture. He has seen “defensive injuries.” What are those? Well, when you put your arms up to ward off blows — from machetes, axes, and the like — you get injured. Your arms get pretty ground up.

If you’re the Zimbabwean government, you catch, torture, and release. The people you have tortured are “human billboards,” as Godwin says. Their message: Better not do anything to upset the government.

Violence has always been Mugabe’s modus operandi, says Godwin. It would be lovely to knock him off his perch. The Castros too.

Ah, speaking of them! There are, of course, demonstrators outside the Christiania Theater, demanding the release of “the Cuban Five.” You remember who this lovely quintet is, don’t you? They are the Castro agents who, after exquisitely democratic trials, were jailed in the United States.

In every free country, it seems, there are people willing to defend the cause of the Castros and Cuban Communism. Wish they had to live there — in the Castros’ Cuba, I mean.

Then again, they might make out rather well, like “Assata Shakur.”

Maryam Nayeb Yazdi is an Iranian-Canadian human-rights activist. Her topic here in Oslo is “Iran’s Weapon of Choice.” And that weapon? Execution. She says that capital punishment is the regime’s “main tool” for the spreading of fear.

She lists the capital-punishment countries: Iran, North Korea, China, and the United States.

I’m afraid I’ve never been able to accept this lumping in — and I am opposed to capital punishment. Iran, North Korea, and China execute untold numbers of innocent people. The United States executes the worst murderers after an exhaustive legal process.

Capital punishment may be wrong — but I have never been able to accept this lumping in.

Regardless, I think what Maryam Nayeb Yazdi is doing with her life is magnificent. (A quick aside: What is it about Iranian womanhood? If there ever came a time to pick a Miss Iran, what would the judges do? Point randomly in the streets?)